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Fears about personal growth

There was a talk at the CFAR alumni reunion, back in August, about “Core Skills Growth.” I don’t actually remember all the content of the talk; the notes that I took were all about my squick reactions, the things that seemed wrong or bad or scary about rapid personal growth and change. (Note: I’m going to use the phrase ‘personal growth’, but I mean a specific kind of rationality-community-cluster personal growth, which probably isn’t the same thing as the mainstream meaning. If you’re not familiar with this usage, it might be confusing, but I’m too tired to try to attempt a full definition now.)

I think this might be one of those “mindspace is wide and deep” areas; a place where humans vary drastically, and my fears might seem completely alien to other people. But they’re real to me and I take them seriously. And pretty much every time I’ve had the thought “I’m probably weird and broken and no one else is like me”, it’s turned out that a bunch of other people were like me but hadn’t been writing about it.

These were the fears on my list:

  • 1) Becoming arrogant
  • 2) Becoming prone to existential angst
  • 3) Moving ahead of friends and then leaving them behind.
  • 4) Not being replaceable anymore.
  • 5) Not being able to hang out with supervillains


  1. Becoming Arrogant

I think I might hold this as a Bad Thing on a basic, virtue-ethics level. People have certainly made the argument to me that a measure of arrogance is a good thing. My response tends to be “okay, so it’s a good thing for you. I still don’t want to be arrogant!” This feels similar to the way in which, even though loyalty has its downsides, I still want to be loyal. One of the consequences of having a brain that runs on virtue ethics is that I have an idea of what character I want to have, and some things just conflict with that.

There might be an area of personal growth that would require me to be more okay with arrogance, or at least some aspects of it. (A fully unpacked definition of it would be useful, but I’m not actually 100% sure what rationality-community-cluster people mean.) I think if I could convince myself that ‘not being arrogant’ was an instrumental value that supported other values, like other humans being happy, but that actually ‘being more arrogant’ supported those values better, I’d be okay with it.


  1. Existential angst

I think I used to feel a little bit smugly superior for not suffering from this thing that so many people on LW apparently suffered from. I know people who are desperately afraid of death, and others who have conquered their fear of it. I don’t remember ever fearing death much in the first place. I’ve never gone through a religious deconversion, painful or otherwise. I’ve never agonized about the meaning of life. I’ve agonized about plenty of things, but they tend to be personal, even petty.

Growing up, I think acceptance/resignation was the easiest attitude for me to adopt. I am a thing made out of atoms in a horrifyingly neutral universe. The best I can do is survive. At least I can be good at it.

But a lot of personal growth relies on anti-acceptance–on staring reality in the face and saying “no, not okay.” And acceptance relies, at least partly, on thinking of yourself as small and unimportant.

I’m not sure how much a person’s tendency to existential angst is due to beliefs about the world (in which case it seems likely to change), or basic personality traits (less likely). But it does seem like having the tendency would make me less productive, and is thus worth worrying about.


  1. Moving ahead

A specific example comes to mind here. I have a friend who I’ve known since we were both twelve years old–the only non-family person I’ve been in contact with that long. In high school and early university, she was often the only person I felt able to be vulnerable with. I could tell her anything, even the humiliating things. I became the godmother of her son; we lived together for a year and a half. In a different version of my life, we could have been lifelong best friends.

The problem is that I have changed, in the past ten years, and she hasn’t–not enough. I don’t know how to connect to her anymore, and I don’t know how to not feel like a terrible human being for wanting to pull away.

I’m afraid of this happening to other people in my life–like my sister, my parents. I haven’t even done that much self-modification in the past ten years, and hardly any of it deliberate. I’m afraid that the five-years-from-now me might look back and find my parents’ values as alien as I find my friend’s now. (This seems unlikely. My parents are really freaking cool. But it still scares me.)


4) Not being replaceable

This one is kind of hard to explain. I think I find a lot of security in thinking of myself as a gamepiece interchangeable with others. I’m a nurse. I do valuable, important work…but if I get sick, if I get depressed, if I die, nothing bad happens to the world. There are other nurses.

(It’s hard to explain because other people seem to find this really alien. I know people aren’t fungible, and I know I’m not replaceable to my friends or my parents–but I kind of wish I was? It’s comforting to see my friends having other friends and know that the system is robust even if you take my part out.)

It might be possible to grow a lot and accomplish a lot without changing this, but it seems like thinking of oneself as important (and thus irreplaceable) helps for personal growth.


5) Not being able to hang out with supervillains

This is a catchphrase for a complicated idea/feeling that I’m not sure I can convey, but I’ll try. Basically…my current “self”, as a cluster of values, seems pretty robust, pretty stable. No one’s going to be able to convince me that I ought to be more selfish; I doubt even reading Ayn Rand in my teens would’ve done this. (Anna Salamon’s alternate-world-prediction is that it would have caused me to rebel and be less selfish.) No one, by force of argument, can touch the things that I really care about.

That means it’s safe to talk to anyone. I can hang out with neoreactionaries, or social justice people, or the weirdest parts of Less Wrong, or anything in between, and never worry that my values will get hijacked. I don’t get upset about arguments on the Internet because they don’t really touch me. This means that I can be purely curious about the world, and learn all sorts of interesting things and marvel at what a surreal age I live in.

The price of stability? Two years, and I’ve made only a little headway on convincing myself that ambition isn’t always a bad thing. Superficial values aren’t that hard; I was easily coaxed away from ‘saving all your money and never buying things is virtuous’ to ‘making the best use of your resources in all currencies including money, time, and attention is virtuous.’ To the part of my brain that manages virtues, those are the same thing, a value reacting to empirically different world-states.

If I’m going to try to change my values on purpose, it will require being vulnerable in a way I’ve never been before–and I’m not sure it would allow me to shield my core values in the same way. I would have to adopt a kind of epistemic hygiene, avoiding reading and interacting with ‘supervillains’, i.e. people whose values I don’t want to accidentally incorporate into my own.

I’m not sure why that’s so bad, except that it seems really really bad.


I don’t have a better solution to most of these, other than ‘plow ahead anyway.’ I might think of some solutions in the next few months or years. If I do, I’ll probably write about them.